2. Around My Block – Jedah Mayberry (Fiction) Around My Block “grew out of an earnest attempt to understand what might lead to an Eric Garner or Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin incident. Presented in a series of shorts, the narrative is based on the premise of a journalism student tasked with interviewing people he encounters on the street having failed to complete an exercise on eavesdropping to his professor's satisfaction.”
Tobin Johnston - Poetry
Tobin Johnston is a Writer and poet but more than that he is a husband to an artist and a father to three of the most amazing children he could hope to have.
McKenzie Stubbert – Music & Production
McKenzie Stubbert is a composer for Film, Dance, Virtual Reality and other art projects based in Los Angeles.
Around My Block
When Love Goes Blind –
Her name is Millicent. She grasps the tips of my fingers lightly with hers. She tells me the man by her side is her husband, Gabriel. The two have chosen a bench positioned beneath a pair of stunning red maples to get their daily dose of sun.
"How long have you and your husband been together?" I ask. Her cream-coffee complexion looks as though it has robbed her hair of all its coloring. Coarse white strands run away from her forehead along either temple, from the center of the sharp widow's peak anchoring her hairline.
"What is your mother's name?" She asks–a question in answer to my question. "Viola," I reply. "And how old is your mother?" I tell her my mother is forty-three. "Gabriel and I were an item long before your mother's name was a song inside your granddaddy's head."
Gabriel wears heavy, dark sunglasses. He rests both hands on the end of a wooden walking stick, a cane with part of the curved handle cut off to more easily fit his grip. His chin is flecked with whiskers. Dark moles dot the landscape of brown skin across his cheekbones.
"How have you managed to stay together all this time?" I adjust the aim of my question. Millicent eyes her husband, the smile on her face not meant for his benefit.
"The last time he saw me, I was beautiful," she explains. "And he earned a decent wage at a time that I needed him to make a life for me. Together is what we have. Little else matters outside that." Gabriel cranes his neck an added inch, listens for the pigeons scratching for space along the walkway beside his feet. He reaches inside his coat pocket then spreads a few crumbles of bread in the direction that has drawn his ear. A gaggle of overfed hens waddle over and begin pecking away at Gabriel's generous offering. He adjusts his posture, settles his shoulders back into the curve of the bench. The sun glints off the lens of his glasses. No light in, none out.
"Gabriel was a prize fighter in his day," she explains. He hunches a shoulder, prepares to throw a jab in the direction of an invisible foe positioned along the walkway, muscle memory transforming his whole disposition. He settles back into the bench as Millicent gives him another smile that I alone can see.
"The doctors warned him, one more fight, maybe two. He fought another dozen times or more, his aim a bit less sure with each bout, his defense that much easier to penetrate." She brushes his knee with an open palm. He presses his hands deeper into the handle of his walking stick.
"We had a good couple of years after that, living the high-life then everything went dark for him. I've been his eyes ever since. And he has been my heart." He gives a smile back to her when she casts one on him this time.
I write L-O-V-E at the bottom of the notes I've been taking–underline each letter separately. "Do take care," I offer as I bid them good day.
"We will do just that," she replies. "And, when you speak with Viola again, let her know that she has raised a lovely young man." She lets one of her smiles go in my direction. I return the gesture.
I high-step across a stray gathering of pigeons, measure my gait as they speed up the pace with their waddling in an effort to escape my path.
The Rhythm –
His head nods almost imperceptibly, side-to-side, back and forth, the sound inside his headphones sparking an involuntary response. I put a hand to my head, pluck an imaginary ear bud from my ear.
"Can I holler at you a second?" A disinterested hand motions a response–whatever. He slips his headphones around his neck, a hypnotic rhythm filling the space between us with a faint thumping.
"Can I ask what you do?" I say, feigning politeness to show I'm here acting in a semi-official capacity.
"I make beats," he answers, gives the cord to his headphones a twirl.
"Oh, yeah. What do they call you?" I ask, enthusiasm running beyond the bounds of my semi-official role.
"Is that the name your parents gave you?"
"My parents named me Hassan."
"Done anything I might know?"
He wrinkles the corner of his mouth. I am failing to engage my subject.
"I mean, I'm a huge hip-hop fan. There's a good chance I've heard some of your work."
He slips his headphones from around his neck, dangles the cord in my direction. I listen a minute, my head nodding in time to the beat.
"Wait. Is that..."
"They're back together?"
"Got a new album dropping at the end of the month. They're expecting to release this as the first single."
He takes the headphones from my hand, nods. "Appreciate it. Don't mean to be rude, but I gotta bounce. Stay up, kid." He brushes a light dust from the stoop off the back of his Levi's then proceeds down the block, his head again moving in time to the rhythm.
I look him up on Instagram later that evening–Hassan Mohsen (iGotThatTrill). I'm treated to photo after photo of every major artist from the past decade, many seated alongside Trill on the very stoop where I met him, hip-hop royalty gracing my block.
It's another week or two before I happen upon him again, seated on the stoop, headphones in place over his ears, his head nodding to a familiar rhythm.
"What's up?" I say hoping for a second chance to engage him.
He drops the headphones around his neck sparing me the finger-as-an-ear-bud pantomime.
"What's good, kid?"
"Nothing," I reply. "Chillin'," I say, working to match his cool. I fidget with my notebook, force myself to maintain eye contact. "I copped that EPMD joint."
"Yeah. Whaddya think?"
"It's live! Don't know why they stayed gone so long."
"What can I tell you? Music industry people are shady. Can drive a wedge between the closest of friends."
"Aren't you part of the music industry?"
"I just make beats." He raises a hand to his chest, proclaiming his innocence.
I sense him about to put me off again. "This your building?" He looks over his shoulder, eyeing the stoop.
"My grandpop's." He tilts his head in my direction, waits for me to press. He's done the journalist stroll before. But I've got nothing. Thankfully, he proceeds unsolicited.
"I take him every Tuesday for his dialysis. He's usually spent afterwards. Some weeks are rougher on him than others." He nods toward the curbside. A man in an ivory tunic and matching knit kufi sits in the passenger side of a Mercedes truck dozing, recovering from yet another ordeal hooked to a machine.
"Anything I can help you with?"
"Nah, fam. We're good. I'll let pops snooze a while longer. I'll get him a little something to gnaw on later. Then I'll help him to his apartment. We'll do the whole thing over again next week, Insha' Allah–God Willing."
I nod, my little book of questions no match for the multitude of issues in his world. He raises a hand, leans into me. I clasp his hand in mine, fingers around thumb, push my shoulder into his as he presses his free hand against my back. "Peace be unto you, my friend."
"Peace be unto you," I parrot back at him hoping he will forgive my ignorance. I walk away sensing a kinship between us, marvel at the apparent connection I've made to hip-hop royalty, royalty that too has his parcel of burdens to carry.
"If you don't mind," I begin, politeness again my calling card. "May I ask your name?"
"Victor," he offers, breaking his stride just long enough to entertain my question. "It means winner."
"Are you winning?" I ask.
"I here," he replies. "That's winning, wouldn't you say?" His eyes glisten as though they have swallowed a fair portion of the sea. His dialect suggests a lifetime spent in close proximity to the ocean, singsong memories of an island existence resting on the tip of his tongue.
"You're not from here," I say.
He shuffles to the left then steps back to the right. "I was from there. Now, I from here. A hundred steps ago, I was from the kitchen inside my apartment where no one was there to pester me with a hundred needless questions. Another hundred steps and I'll be resident in the bodega up the block purchasing my lot'ry ticket from the man who promises each week to share the proceeds with me if I win." He turns to address me face-on. "WHEN I win, then maybe I'll let you tell my story."
"If we're talking, we're walking." He taps my shoulder then takes off in a stride that more closely resembles a light run. I step briskly to keep pace by his side.
"What I mean to ask is where you were from before you came here?"
"I'm not the kind of man to let the island I'm from rob the joy of where I stand today." He shakes a finger at me. "The island is a trap, I tell you. Me, I need open spaces." He spreads his arms wide making believe he can touch the brick face of the building on either side of the street with a stretch of his fingertips.
"But, isn't Manhattan an island?" I ask, concerned about the logic behind his claims.
"Now, you catchin' my drift. Everyplace is an island. This city, this country, this whole planet is surrounded by something bigger than itself. Me, I ain't gonna be here long. You best to write that you met me here on 'dis precise date," he says glancing down at my notepad. "'Cause the next time you come looking for me, I g'wan be someplace else."
My tongue refuses to obey the instruction Professor Daly had given–engage but take care not to become personally involved with your subject. "So what has you trapped on this particular island?"
"My daughter is trapped on 'dis same pile of rock. Until I find her again, me cyan't leave." He pushes me away with his stare, brushes the sound of my voice from his ear.
"How could you lose track of your daughter?" I ask, the air inside my throat stifling the words.
"When you're young, you do young things. And trust me when I say, young people are mostly foolish. I let foolish pride take my daughter from me. I could not be this girl's father. I was just a boy. I returned to Grenada, let the man to whom her mother's hand was promised take responsibility for my burden, to assume my joy. I been longing for her every day since," he says, his spirit sagging beneath the weight of his words.
"Her mother wrote me one time, left a return address to this very block. She told me my daughter was growing straight as a canary reed." He reaches inside his wallet, produces a small photograph folded in fours. The photo is nearly as old as I am. Tiny creases run across its face top-to-bottom, left-to-right like thin string pulled taut across delivery package papering.
"This is my Regina," he boasts thumbing a finger across a jagged smile, two front teeth missing, her face framed beneath a pair of braided pigtails.
"I gon' find her," he insists. "Then I g'wan leave this place, fast, fast.
"I gone," he says as he flings the bodega door open in front of my chest, his eyes drunk with the full expanse of the ocean.
"WHEN I find her, I'll be delighted to let you tell my story."
"Deal," I tell him as the bodega door clamors shut between us. "Keep winning."
Rising Stars –
My head is full with thoughts of kids as I round the next corner. Will I ever father a child? If so, will I manage to behave less foolishly?
I stop in front of the playground. I hook my fingers inside the chain link fence near a group of middle-schoolers, getting in some play time before the serious ballers take to the court. I listen in an earnest attempt to comprehend their babbling. They appear to be reenacting a recent playoff series. A player on one side of the ball claims to be Joe Johnson (Brooklyn Nets). Someone on the opposing side has labeled himself Carmelo Anthony (NY Knicks), New York finally capable of mustering a proper, cross-town rivalry.
"Which of you is the better shooter?" I ask.
Everyone points toward Carmelo Anthony: "Him, him, him," they say in turn. Carmelo Anthony smiles sheepishly at me, shrugs his shoulders.
"You want to be a professional ball player when you grow up?"
"I want to be a theoretical physicist, like Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory," he explains, seeming to doubt my willingness to comprehend his ambition. "Except my girl is gonna be a lot flier than Amy Farrah Fowler."
"Ain't nothing wrong with Amy Farrah Fowler," Joe Johnson grumbles. "They just dress her funny for the show."
"You should be Leonard," a smallish kid with a mouth full of braces chimes in. "That way, you'd get to be with Penny and she's plenty fly."
"Leonard's not nearly as smart as Sheldon or Amy Farrah Fowler," the lone female baller interjects. We'll call her Swin Cash (NY Liberty). "Plus my brother says we should find heroes to emulate who look like us. I want to be Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut. If you like science so much, you should become an astrophysicist like Neil deGrasse Tyson," she tells Carmelo Anthony.
"Oh, yeah," he shoots back. "If your brother's so smart, why is he always on the block late into night?"
"He's just hanging with his friends. They're not doing anything bad." Her face suggests that she only half-believes the lie.
"My brother and his friends used to hang too," Carmelo replies. "These days, he's locked up more than he's home."
"I know. I be tryna tell my brother to chill. But he's never gonna listen to his little sister." Her shoulders droop.
"He's the one who wanted to be an astronaut in the first place. He hung a poster of Ronald McNair on the ceiling above his bed. Said Ron McNair died in a space shuttle explosion. My brother called it a noble pursuit, your soul scattered among the stars in the name of science. He told me I could be an astronaut too, turned me on to Mae Jemison. Now my brother just hangs."
I attempt to redirect their energy. "What's the fascination with outer space?"
"It's as far as you can go in the universe, as big as you can be," Swin Cash explains. "Looking down, you see everyplace you've ever been, anyplace you'll ever want to be," she adds, repeating things she's undoubtedly picked up from her brother only you can tell she's beginning to believe the dream for herself even if he might not get there.
"It gives you a perspective on the whole island," I tell her, Victor's words ringing in my ear.
"Looks more like a giant marble to me. But, yeah, it adds perspective."
I nod in agreement. "A giant marble. I like that," I offer, recording the remark.
"What's with the notepad?" Joe Johnson asks.
"It's for a school project," I start to explain when Carmelo Anthony interrupts.
"Man, school let out three weeks ago. You musta got left back," he jabs sending his compatriots into a fit of laughter.
"It's for college. I'm studying to be a journalist." Carmelo Anthony wrinkles his chin suggesting that he now distrusts my ambition.
He eventually shrugs off his disbelief, nods. "Whatever. That's cool."
I was overcome by a sudden compulsion to become an astrophysicist, to rise with the young'uns among the stars. "Y'all be cool," I tell them as another bouncing ball approaches, the serious ballers descending on the court. "Stick to your dreams," I say as I let go of the chain link fence.
"You too," Swin Cash calls after me. At least she has faith in my ambition.
Black and Blue –
It has been a long yet productive day. All I want is a slice and a fountain soda on ice–because soda tastes better that way, carbonated bubbles filling the cup to the brim of its plastic lid. Then my day will be complete.
I enter the pizza joint. Two uniformed patrol officers are in line ahead of me. My mind is thinking two slices, but I raise one finger to the man behind the counter who proceeds to load a slice of pepperoni into the oven with a long wooden paddle. His movement behind the counter is a well-rehearsed ballet: a finger flick and the oven door swings open, a shoulder shrug with the paddle and my slice moves securely to a place of middle heat. Another finger flick and the oven door swings closed. He retakes his position along the back wall, arms folded across his chest as he waits to repeat the ballet in reverse order.
Officer No. 1 positions himself at the far end of the counter. No. 2 takes up post by the doorway. No One and No Two is how my cousin would refer to them, always seen in twos around our block, sent to protect one another ahead of any one of us. My cousin can be a bit militant. Still, I take heed. I adjust the straps of my backpack on my shoulders. I want to reach in and retrieve my notepad, alert them to my semi-official capacity. But I know the protocol–no sudden movements, keep your hands where I can see them.
I resist the urge to engage them, to make them part of my study. I instead work to disappear in my own little world, but my eyes betray me. I need to know who I'm dealing with: old or young; Black, White or Hispanic. Older cops bust balls; younger cops split heads. Regardless of age, a cop's skin color is a coin toss. In the end, they all bleed blue.
Incessant chatter from their police radios has the room on high alert. No One reaches for the mouthpiece affixed to the epaulet on his left shoulder. "Officer blah, blah, blah. Please repeat." I listen as the dispatcher squawks a response: 'high top sneakers, backpack, hooded sweatshirt, fitted hat,' easily describing half of the young male population on the planet.
I slip my backpack free of my shoulders. Rest my ball cap on the counter, my forehead beading with sweat. I long for the outside air, to be on the street again.
"You want to tell us where you're coming from?" No One asks wagging two fingers in my direction. No Two looks me up and down, shifts his weight between his feet. I'm tempted to shuffle step to the left then shuffle back to the right. Tell them I was from there now I'm from here, that I'm winning. I think better of it.
"From around the block," I say, keeping a keen watch on No Two–hands where I can see them, no sudden movements. I glance over at the pizza shop owner. I can't read the look in his eyes, the curl of his lip–disgust, I reckon. At me, at them, at the need for this standoff to unfold in his shop? I suspect good and bad guys eat pizza by the slice just the same. He can't vouch for me either way.
"Could it be you were up on the boulevard, boosting cars," No One insists. No Two takes a step in my direction, closes off my pathway to the exit.
"Who me?" I ask. "Nah, I'm no car thief. You got the wrong guy."
"I'll tell you who I got and don't got," No One barks into the space remaining between him and me. "What's inside the bag?"
"School stuff," I explain as the shop door swings open again. Enters Hassan–Trill, headphones secure around his ears. His face brightens when he catches sight of me, the tension in the room lost to the music inside his headphones. I motion with a subtle nod of my head, try to push him back outside the shop, away from my predicament.
I check for an alternate exit. The shop keeper has disappeared to the backroom, I hope calling for assistance. No One eases forward making the cramped pizza parlor seem that much smaller. He instructs Hassan to stay put, to show his hands.
I press my back into the counter. Lift my arms over my head.
Hassan brushes past No Two, a puzzled look trained on me. "What's going on, kid?" he asks, fumbling with his headphones. He pushes forward reaching inside his front pocket.
Chaos ensues. No One discharges a single round hitting Hassan in the shoulder. Hassan stumbles for the doorway. No Two proceeds to unload round after round as Hassan lunges in the officer's direction.
Hassan falls to the ground, cellphone in hand, the spiral cord of his headphones splattered with blood. The gunfire ceases leaving me frozen in place, cowering beneath the counter. Sirens wail in the distance.
His name was Hassan Mohsen (iGotThatTrill). He made beats. Peace be unto you, my friend.
Jedah Mayberry is a storyteller, a consummate people watcher, and the fearless father to two teenage girls.
"Secrets" - Sunny Selby
I eat them for breakfast.
Mix them casually in my eggs.
Dissolve them in my coffee,
Separated by choice and layered by necessity.
But I see we are all layered.
Here's my secret:
They sit together.
Fixed forever under the running water.
Secrets like lies dodged and burned.
On my black finger tips.
In memory and on paper
That I eat like a sweet date.
Rolling on my scorched tongue
From coffee -- too hot.
Sunny Selby – Sunny Selby is the daughter of an obstinate Fin who lived most of her life with one lung, and the daughter of a poetic photographer; she’s been chasing short stories in visual art & poetry to tell the tales.
"California" - Simi Snider
Simi Snider is a photographer/writer who strives to capture the emotions in her environment that strike her.
Émile Nelligan est mort
After finding you in his company, I held Émile Nelligan in my hands. Although slim and delicate as a fish bone, he was heavy with a language I didn’t understand. I took him to the bridge. I leant over its side. January’s remains were starved and seagull-grey. The river was a spill of ink. When the leftovers of the day finally coloured the sky, I drowned him.
It began the day the clouds gathered and dropped hints of snow. December held its breath. My brain was restless. I’d retreated to Leaky’s, the only second-hand bookshop I know that serves drinks and home-made soup. I often go there to write. I like the cold and the hush and the smile of the old owner. Life has stretched her thin, skin tight over the gnarls and knots of her joints. I sat at one of the scrubbed wooden tables on the indoor balcony, pleasuring my tongue with real coffee.
That afternoon I gave up on my poem and wandered among the stacks, tightly packed with neglected books and the smell of vanilla-yellow paper. I drew my fingers along the shelves, until I came to a hardback that had edged forward, out of line with the other books. I eased it out. It was a volume of Auden’s poetry. And there was another book wedged within it. Its cover was a deep red, its spine crippled. There was no title. I opened it; a ghost of dust escaped.
Émile Nelligan Et Son Oeuvre. Montreal 1903.
The opposite page bore a portrait of a young man. Below it someone had pencilled:
1879-1941, French-Canadian. Influences: Baudelaire, Verlaine, Poe. Wrote 170 poems aged 15-19, before going mad.
I leafed through the book; the poems were all in French. I turned back. The poet had a mane of dark hair swept away from his forehead. His features were broad and dramatic. But what made him so striking was his vulnerability, the way he wore sadness with elegance. He reminded me of a muzzled bear, slave to a performance of simple tricks. And beyond all this there was something else. It was there in the dark well of his pupil.
As I re-read the penciled notes, my thoughts turned to you and your thesis. Your struggle with ‘Identity and Intertextuality in Québécois Literature’ had drained you of colour. I paid fifty pence for the anthology in the hope it might help.
‘It’s in French,’ I said when I handed you the book.
You opened the slim anthology; interest stilled your water-green eyes. ‘Émile Nelligan ...’
‘Have you heard of him?’
‘No.’ You flicked to the middle of the book. ‘ “Fantôme, il disparut dans la nuit, emporté par le souffle mortel des brises hivernales.” ’
I waited for you to translate. Instead, you turned back to the portrait. I could see he had your attention.
At first, your interest was innocent: you were a scholar with a new-found subject. I listened to you talk about Nelligan’s life and theorize about his work. Ideas hit you like bouts of fever. You quoted lines of his verse, slipping in and out of French with ease, as if it were a lover. I grew irritated and curious. I searched the internet until I found copies of Nelligan’s poems. I pinned them to the walls of the study, read and re-read them. The poet’s voice rose with a powerful clarity. From bizarre and beautiful images Émile Nelligan emerged like a phantom, a winter creature, lingering at the periphery of his poetry.
December collapsed into January. Another magazine rejected my poems. I read the editor’s letter, and then spent the day in Leaky’s, drowning my sense of failure in coffee.
‘How are you finding that French poet?’ asked the old owner when she served me my third cup.
‘Ah.’ She nodded. ‘You know in French a goldfish is red:
le poisson rouge.’
I gave her a weak smile.
I tried to write, but Nelligan paced the edge of my thoughts.
When I returned to the flat, I was surprised and pleased to see your shoes at the kitchen door. I heard your voice. Had you brought someone back? I wanted you all to myself. The bedroom door was ajar. You stood at the foot of the bed, facing the mirror. You were half-naked and reading Nelligan aloud. I pushed open the door, took a step into the room. You continued to read, until you glanced up – caught my reflection at the mirror’s edge. The room was filled with an afternoon light that brought life to the changing colours in your hair. Did you feel the tips of your ears redden?
You smiled. ‘It’s ok. I got carried away.’ You dropped the book on the bed.
I had the rejection letter clutched in my hand. ‘Is that Nelligan?’
‘He’s a real find. His poems are so naked and honest, yet they have this - this deadly impact ... I - I keep forgetting he’s dead. When I read him, it’s like he’s there – laid on the page ... I don’t know ... he’s just ...’
‘Distracting, damaging ... ’
You nodded. ‘He retreated into verse. There was always a struggle between his inner self and outer reality; it created great poetry, but tore apart the poet.’ You paused, surprised by what you’d said. ‘I need to write that down.’ You scrabbled around for a pen. Nelligan had captivated you again.
I went to the bed and flicked through the anthology. Your annotations were closed around his verse. Would my work ever prove worthy of such scholarly devotion?
‘Strange that you can enjoy so much intimacy with someone who’s dead.’
‘You sound jealous.’
‘No.’ You looked up. I shook my head. ‘I’m not jealous.’
Silence opened up between us. I laid the anthology back on the bed.
‘What’s that?’ You indicated my letter.
‘Oh, nothing. Just some notes. I was going to get a cup of tea. Do you want one?’
You shook your head, frowned down at your writing. ‘I’m meant to be going out. You can come if you want.’
‘No.’ I held up the letter. ‘Got these notes to work on.’
Only when the kettle had boiled and I’d stirred a second sugar into my tea did I allow myself to breathe. Then, I retreated to the study and lay on the floor in the last patch of sunlight.
I woke to the silence of Sunday. A shower warmed me and my head drew comfort from a pot of coffee. I tuned the radio and sat at the desk. By the time the caffeine reached my fingers, I’d covered my notebook in random words copied from Nelligan’s verse. I could not escape his sad, prophetic cry. Yet the poet himself refused to surface. He was distorted behind some final layer of meaning that I could not grasp and withdraw.
‘... it’s like he’s there – laid on the page ...’
I bit my lip. And then I tore at my notebook, swept the words to the floor. I tugged on my coat. The bedroom smelt of drunken sleep. I paused beside the bed and examined the constellation of freckles that marks your left cheek. How familiar and yet strange it seemed.
‘ “In the dark well you see there lies the source of all this drama.” ’
Yes, I was jealous. Émile Nelligan had slipped between us, disturbed the surface of our lives. He waited on your desk.
I walked slowly. My feet knew where to take me: the park on the west side of the city. Crows squabbled, swings faded into drab. I headed for the bridge that arches over the large lily pond. I weighed the book in my hands and thought of the fish wintering in the water’s depths.
‘In French a goldfish is red: le poisson rouge ...’
I frowned, flicked through the anthology. The language looked so familiar, yet was a puzzle; it exasperated and enticed. It had created an intimacy between you and the poet. You could see what lay in the well of his pupil. I could not: in the act of translation it had fallen into obscurity.
I pressed a stone between the pages of the anthology, before looking once more at Nelligan’s portrait.
‘ “I, too, have dreamed of making poetry that lives.” ’
By then the leftovers of the day were finally colouring the sky.
Émile Nelligan is dead.
Author’s Note: Inspired by the life and work of Émile Nelligan. Quotes taken from The Complete Poems of Emile Nelligan edited and translated by Fred Cogswell.
Oliver Forbes Carmichael - Obsessed with word, birds, wings and soul things: “Autism is my super power.”
B. Dani West
Jim Beam and Scoresby Scotch
Underneath the Christmas lights in November.
It was on that night we’d bought
Spoiled alligator sausage from a street vendor.
Birthday boy was trashed shotgun,
Dreams bubbling up his throat
As I drove us forwards,
And your fingers traced a cross
In sarcastic lines from shoulder to shoulder.
I never did sleep that night;
Too transfixed from highway gliding.
That radio blasting tossed
The lifeless lover in my heart past the county line.
Oh we were so young back then-
If I could return for a day or an hour
I’d steal the dosages of Rohypnol.
Time slips us until we wake under flowers.
I Wanted You In August
B. Dani West
How the sun set on the long ride home.
You sipped coffee out of Styrofoam
(A disposable puddle of cream)
And held my hand below the dash.
That night of whiskey, a silver dollar on the dresser,
Spent in your grave of used dressings;
Salvaged candlewax spelt out your vows
In a stammered slobber–sweet.
Daybreak was never merciful,
As hopes sailed ground-bound from mountain tops—
I thought I saw a shooting star then.
I was steady as a wasted horse,
B. Dani West is an LA native, psychology student with a minor in creative writing, and writer of all things fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and insults on dirty car windows.
the dust on the fan says it all
my rushed pulse
the breath i try to steal
flesh and flesh and flesh and flesh
and on and on
and their godawful orbits
just where the hell have i been
leaves and fog and dreams and sobs
and the keys are around here somewhere
just as they were a thousand years ago
the low tide is the worst
because you can run too far
getting caught in the miracle of debris
and finding your way back
can eat you alive
we are not supposed to miss someone else's moments
we scarcely even live our own
but when you've been unkempt
and the dust builds up
you start to hate long orbits
and low tides
and you demand to know
just where the hell have i been
Andrew Feaster – ”Man of the People - MSW - Bakersfield, CA."
Staring at the window
after a stormy day
and seeing the accumulated
rain drops trickle down.
Each drop: a tear, a memory
of celestial beings, poisoned
by noxious fumes.
Some run fast;
the wax of life.
Some remain still
and accumulate rainbows.
Some days, I just want to shout at the rain,
to tell them–those heavenly deities–
everything will be alright;
purged and washed away.
Joshua Dale – Studying within the bowels of William Penn: “I dare to cease the perpetual gears within me.”
The Lesser & The Greater
He sits on the edge of the bed. His toes visibly moving beneath the thin black dress socks. His polished shoes sit by the chair, his jacket – draped over an arm. He reviews a handful of papers in his right hand. His other, tied up from a stroke 20 years earlier, hangs slack at his side like a branch weighted down by snow.
You know, no one cares if you remember them. She chides him from an adjoining bathroom. She feels young before the mirror, nearly 40 years his junior.
Oh, I am not reading any of the old speeches.
Well Dr. King, aren't you full of surprises.
She walks over to him and playfully swats at the papers in his hand. He tucks them away, somehow embarrassed and proud at the same time.
Will you get ready? He scolds. I don't want to keep anyone waiting.
Don’t worry, I’m sure no one is going to be there.
She walks back to the bathroom but over her shoulder she sees he is worried. He is back to his new speech. His mouth moves without speaking. His thumb rests at his temple. For a moment she imagines him a younger man. Hair black as opposed to storm cloud grey. A man of those important days; the righteous orator, the self-assured leader of the people. She didn’t look at the old photos much or the videos on YouTube any longer. They had been her mother’s milk but now she failed to recognize him in them. They only told her that he was old; that one day the pictures would be all she had.
Still, she could see that age had been a petty thief. He was thicker-set but still light on his toes. His voice did not as often ascend into the reverberating tones of deep power, but there were moments when she felt that it could. The touchstone salvaged from the lighting rod, always threatening to reawaken the urgency that justice required but still only threatening. Now, years later, without the crowds and the cause, he was what he had always been and meant to be - the quintessential old preacher - excited, but cautious and less certain; all fire, but little brimstone. She stops applying mascara, checks the clock on her cellphone and looks over at her father. She listens to him rehearse in the room. Sensing her attention, he stops.
"Hotel 1" - Sunny Selby
Can I help you?
I don’t know, are you going to let me hear it?
It’s not finished.
Come on. Just the first line.
It’s not done.
I need you to get ready. It’s. . . He looks for a clock in the room. What happened to having clocks in hotel rooms?
It’s 8:45. She recites from her smartphone.
You need to finish up. I would like to get there early. I'm serious. He uses his no-funny-business tone but she smiles.
Oh, I can tell you’re serious. Well, what was he like? Do you miss him? She gestures to his speech.
Ralph? Ralph Abernathy was as true a friend as a man could hope for in the times we found ourselves in. I would do it all again if Ralph was still here to do it with me. There’s not a day goes by. . . He interrupts himself to add these lines to his speech.
And? She asks, but he is back to reading, lost in the rhythm of his own words. When she sees no answer is coming she lets out a groan. Suddenly she's sick of the yellowish bathroom light. She walks to the window. It is one of those large windows that open toward the parking lot. The curtains are closed but framed in a diffuse light at the edges like a glowing cartouche. She feels his worry follow her across the room. He's not ignoring her now. He's not thinking of being late now. He's focused on the window.
She pretends he is not there. She turns her back on the room’s shadows. She wants to see light and feel the early hours pure offering emblazon her eye lids. She doesn’t bother with the cord but walks to the center and parts the fabric like Moses, the Red Sea. No sooner is the room filled with the cool grey of an Alabama morning than he speaks up.
Now Delia, you know how much I don’t care for that draft.
There is no draft. The window’s shut.
I can feel a draft.
She refuses to respond.
A nervousness pinches his voice. His worry is audible and she lets the curtains fall closed. She walks past him and returns to the bathroom, to the mirror, to the dingy yellow light and buzzing bathroom fan.
He is frozen on the bed. Several tears wet his cheeks. Tremors run through his right hand. She feels badly. She walks over to him and puts her arms around him. Her hand pats his back. He holds onto her until the quakes still. She returns to the bathroom.
He’s nervous still; preoccupied with the window now. He shifts on the bed; turning his back from the light and keeping the window in his field of vision. He returns to his speech but with a broken attention. After a moment more, he throws his speech down in frustration.
Yes? She asks.
After a small pause he asks, Do you think your mother will be there? I should very much like to see her.
Knowing this question was coming did not help her find it any less annoying.
Oh, I think you need to just focus on your speech.
Did you know we almost didn’t have you? She curses softly at her reflection. She hates it when he speaks about her. It's stupid. It like listening to someone talk about the town you grew up in. Worse, it's someone singing your favorite song but singing all the words wrong. She isn’t someone who grew up with two parents. She is, however, someone who doesn't want to hear some old dude talk about how he ‘knew’ mother back in the day, no matter who he thinks he is.
I don’t think I am ready for this right now. I find this conversation offensive.
Yes, offensive. I don’t feel nothing but offense. You talk about my mother; I want you to stop.
I did know her.
We’ve talked about this before. You knew her to a point.
He is undeterred.
Sometimes, I worry you are right, that there is only enough room in our imagination for a single version of someone, a single face. I remember your mother so clearly the day we met but I can’t imagine her now. She had this laugh. . .
The day we met — she repeats these words in her mind like she had never considered the words before. She hears their novelty. Isn’t that what you call those little plastic flowers that spray water in your face - a novelty?
He is still talking — but he who presumes to know the mind of God. . .
Oh? She mumbles in an absent tone.
Is a fool. He finishes.
Who presumes to know the mind of God is a fool!
You interrupt my thinking child and then don't listen?
I was listening. You were saying you’re a fool.
He purses his lips in a frustration that turns into a chuckle that bounces his shoulder and shakes his head.
D, I’m trying to tell you—
Martin, you’re just in your way.
What, pray, is my way? What I’m just trying to say is—
How much you love me. You always get in this way before you speak, Martin.
What of it? For good or ill, I think of myself as your father. I think about not meeting you and I don’t know the man I'm thinking of. And you can stop calling me Martin. We’ve talked about that before too.
She gestures to her face with the magic wand of her lipstick. Here is your daughter with which you are well pleased. She didn’t mean to sound mocking but she did.
That’s not funny and you know why. This was his real no-funny-business voice. The Lord should not be mocked. He adds sternly.
Let me help you with your jacket.
Fine. He stands up.
Do you need help with the shoes, old man?
No. I’ll find a way. The Lord will help me. He tells his shoes.
This is a nice hotel. He does not respond. She looks over and his shoes are on, he is pacing, paper extended in his hand. His right arm pumps in and out on the beat of his words.
Okay. She finishes her look. Her compact snapping shut cuts the silence of the room.
She moves to the door but before he will let them leave he has to check the window. He walks toward them but not as she had a moment ago. He keeps to the side behind the door and then slowly he peeks out just between the curtain and the wall. A thin line of light halves his darkened face. Sweat beads underneath his eyes. His breathing is heavy again. He stays very still before moving to the door. Here, he turns the knob slowly opening it a little at first and then gradually all the way.
This was the painful part of seeing him, witnessing these anxious ticks and routines. Waiting for a table at a restaurant that faced the entrance. Checking new rooms for invisible taps and the underside of car of errant wires. It was sad, to see fear crippled him so, make him like a child, was heartbreaking. The war was over but the soldier was still fighting it.
Finally satisfied, he straightens, takes on his full height, smooth down the buttons on his suit jacket, and walks out the door. They walk to the car. He returns to the rhythm of his oration and she finds in her phone a welcome distraction from feelings she can never quite identify.
"Hotel 2" - Sunny Selby
The rally is being held at the First Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama; Ralph's old church. She drives. He sits silently, looking out the window.
See there, there used to be a church just two blocks that way, First of Christ, I think. My father would speak there from time to time. It’s gone. He fell silent again. This was his way too, she thought, taking his bearings from buildings long torn down.
Must have been nice to visit all those different cities.
Back then? Well. . . We weren't really on vacation. He turned toward her suddenly. Delia, what are you not telling me about your mother?
Dad. . . Let it go. It was a long time ago.
You know, if it’s another man, I could find a way to be happy about that. She deserved better than I could give. She should be happy.
Let’s play a game. She changes the subject. The game is called The Greater and The Lesser.
D, I want to know about your mother—
This game is great. You'll love it. Ask me how to play it. Ask me!
Okay, how do I play it?
If you want to know my secret, the secret of lesser, you have to tell me a secret of the greater.
A secret of the greater. I see. It is not a hard thing to figure.
Okay, then go! Go!
Tell me something I don’t know. Something not already written in a book somewhere. Something you’ve never told anyone. She asks combatively.
Alright, alright, you have to give me some time to come up with something.
And no lying. I would know and you’re a preacher.
Well there was this one time at a little diner in Washington DC, the waitress comes over with my order, she’s white, and tells me that my breakfast was on the house. And I thought, well isn’t that nice, and I look over at the kitchen and nod politely. I get a bunch of nice grins from the men standing by the grill. Of course, they’re white as well. Anyhow, I don’t know what they put in that but I had the runs all the way to the next day.
Well I’m talking the serious shits, like brown water from a hose.
Okay, that’s nasty.
Oh, I forgot, that was the day I gave the ‘I have a dream speech.’
No, you’re making that up.
That’s amazing and totally gross.
It’s your game.
Yes, it is my game but that is still gross.
Okay, I said one, will you tell me now?
Are you kidding me, I don’t know what that was but it was definitely not the greater.
Okay, then tell me something then, something about you I don’t know. Something of the lesser.
She thinks a moment.
Okay, the first time I fooled around, you know with a boy, I was in a church balcony.
You don’t know it. She said coyly.
Sure I do.
She flashes an embarrassed smile.
Do I get to know the boy’s name at least?
Little CC. I can’t believe he would do that.
Don’t be stupid, you don’t know him.
Oh yeah, me and CC go way back.
She gave him a measured look and he started to laugh.
You are such a liar. She hits him from across the car. He only laughs harder.
Seriously though, Cliff Clifford?
That was his name, I didn’t pick it.
Her father turns away from her and looks down the road. They are leaving the downtown and moving into a rural neighborhood whose houses stand adrift in a great sea of green grass unbroken by fences or property lines. Her father is distant again, lost somewhere in the motion of the road.
The road ahead has a slight curve so its end is unseen. They pull up to a stop sign. He starts speaking again.
They came. . . I mean, I bet you didn’t know that they came to me.
He does not respond to her questions, not for five or six more minutes and when he finally does his voice is changed. Gone are the smooth rhythms of his enunciation, the soft tones of his words. These have been replaced by quiver in his lips and slow stutter of his words. Listening, she is so surprised by how unfamiliar he sounds that she is forced to look at him to assure herself it is he who is speaking. She sees it in his face too. Some horrible magic has stolen him from the car.
They came and paid me a visit, the FBI did. They, of course, um, they followed everybody back then. But one day, they called and asked for a sit down and so we sat down. We met at a little church in Little Rock, in the Sunday school room, I remember all the toy trucks lined up against the wall. It was there they made me an offer. She looked at him again. He looked like another man, not her father. Some hidden fire burned him, distorted his face in pain.
They, he cleared his throat, they had some embarrassing information on me with a woman, not your mother, and well, they offered me a deal. They told me that, that if I didn’t agree they could ruin me. They could either expose me for my failings and the fraud I was, a, um, sexual reprobate. They would ruin my reputation, my outreach - he paused - my marriage, your mother and there were others. They knew about her, they knew everything. They said they would set back our cause twenty years.
He stops. His gaze running away from her again. He taps the passenger window with his knuckle. He remains fixed there as he starts again, giving his words out to the receding world.
Or, in exchange for not doing these things, they offered me the gift of a dignified conclusion. That was how they put it. A strange thing to offer a man— a dignified conclusion. What they meant to say was they were offering to martyr me. Even joked about giving me a national holiday.
She didn’t immediately understand him but found the answer in his eyes.
You’re not serious? He nodded. Did mom know?
Goodness no. Only a few others: Jesse, Ralph.
Oh my God!
His face winced at the profanity. I should have taught you better.
How like a hypocrite he could be, she thought. One second extolling virtue, a moment earlier confessing sin.
Oh my G!, she corrected, What did you do?
Well, I agreed to go through with it.
Delia, you don’t understand the times. I would give anything for my people. Everything then was changing. Everything was possible, both bad and good. It was a war. Kent State, Birmingham, all Mississippi. The bombings and lynchings. Malcolm and Evers were gone. Ralph’s house had been bombed. There was no certainty for anyone. I mean if not the FBI than some sicko. That’s what happened to Evers and more you don’t even read about.
All this and there was something else too. I— I could feel death. I could feel it was coming. I was so close to it. It was with me everyday; palpable. It seemed everywhere. It sat in my throat like a rotten apple. Day in and day out, part of me I think wanted it, I wanted something to happen. I wanted to know what was around the corner for once. I was so tired and sick. That’s it, I felt sick and I wanted a cure.
I don’t understand. That’s suicide. You know that? The Bible—
You don’t need to lecture me! Suddenly, his clear voice fills the car with a preacher's righteous anger. I know what the Lord says about that!
She is both frightened by his wrathful tone but also relieved to recognize him again.
Their car pulls to a stop in front of a large church. She shuts off the engine. She waits for him to say something more, but he doesn’t. She contemplates telling him about her mother but two men approach that car and they get out.
"Hotel 3" - Sunny Selby
Dr. King, we want to thank you so much for coming. Two young preachers greet them, both younger than she is. They speak to her almost as an afterthought and then they are ushered into a back entrance of a large building.
The room is a long activity room which connects to a large kitchen. There are metal folding chairs and the musky smell of decades of brewed coffee and store bought cookies. The carpet is the short, flat, commercial variety, worn thin in spots. No matter how ornate the Sanctuary, this ancillary building was really the heart of a church. Stage to wedding receptions and funeral wakes. It was here, away from the formalism of the Sunday service, where life resumed, where good news and bitter gossip was traded in the same sentence.
She takes a place along the wall as a crowd envelops her father. She watches him smile and shakes hands and talk and joke. The fire that burned him is embers now, not gone but concealed to all but those who knew where to look.
Standing along the wall opposite, she can see clearly the crowd surrounding him. She becomes aware that this must have been how her mother experienced him. From across a room. Perhaps, Coretta was at his side. How many years did she stand, not by him, but across from him? Watching him in his handsome suit, bouncing on his tip-toes as he spoke. Watching as the room was built around him. Watching as the men show such deference to him, and the women, the other women! She let herself feel her mother’s jealousy. Watching as the old church ladies and young girls, excited even to lay hands on him. It was positively pornographic. There was no other way to look at it. The way the women responded. She could see the build of excitement, the climax and the release of their 'conjugation'. Some, he claimed to remember, some he only pretended to, but each one left satisfied. She feels a share of pity for her mother and even for Mrs. King.
An older woman, all neck skin and furrowed brow, wearing a Sunday hat so wide it would make a sombrero look twice, gives her father sour looks.
Shameful. The old woman mumbles under her breath. All those women sweatin’ over that old pervert.
For a moment she’s angry. But remembered her mother was beyond this woman’s judgment. And what would her mother have done? She would have laughed such a pure, sincere laugh that shame would have fallen back on that old woman head.
Do you mean my father? She says. Dr. King.
The woman slinks off embarrassed.
She turns back to that old pervert. He is speaking now, sailing his words into the empty air as if everyone in the room was listening and they are.
Ralph was there. Not just beside me, my good friend and great confidant, but he was there for us. He stood up for us. He was there in Birmingham for us. He was there in Tennessee for us. He was there in front of dogs and taking blows for us. The generations that came after to whom that era’s sacrifice is only a page in a book, can say truthfully that they were in Birmingham because Ralph was there. They were in Atlanta because Ralph was there. They were in Huntsville and Memphis and Charleston because Ralph was there.
The crowd agrees with Amens and Yes, Lords.
His voice grows in power with each response.
Even whites can say Ralph was there, advocating on behalf of their muted conscience, offering to educate their ignorance. Let us not forget that Ralph was there so even they can marvel at how little they recognized the love he was offering them and the country he loved.
She listens to the talk, thinking of her own stories and of her mother. How much more would she know had shame not chosen silence for her? Or was it courage opposed to shame? Did she see beyond herself to something greater.
From her place in the room, she notices that just as many speak who did not witness those eventful days spoke as those who had. The younger members recounted stories they had been told and had become their stories by the retelling. Many tales of heartbreak and loss had washed a little cleaner by the passage of time and brought just as many smiles as tears. And at the center of it all, her father stood. Listening, nodding his head, his left hand tucked into his pocket to disguise his malady. It was her father who brought this spirit to bear. These stories, they were always there, simmering beneath the skin but it was her father who brought a little extra heat that brought the past to boil. He, who suffered most visibly, most shamefully, who represented both their moments of bravery and cowardice. There were fleeting moments of dignity and defiance, but many more were the times when eyes were lowered and humiliations were suffered in a silent shame. It was these two opposites he embodied and they offered him their stories not as an act of gratitude prostates but as an act of forgiveness restores friendship. It was to him that they looked to create harmony out of the discordant hymns of their own past so that as they added their suffering to his, joined themselves to him, they brought into reconciliation both who they were then and who they had become and are now. This understanding came to her in her words, in words her father had spoken and tears her mother had shed.
A man interrupts with a word that the rally is soon to start and the crowd shuffles from the room. Her and her father are ushered into a tall, narrow storage room adjacent the large sanctuary. She hears the excited talk out in the main sanctuary. Here the air is stale and smells of old winter light and moth balls. A single window hung high on the wall catches dust in it gold-colored net. The three other walls are covered floor to ceiling with shimmery choir robes and tapestries and flags and silky white banners with gold tassel reading - The Lamb of God, and another one - The Lion of Judah.
Outside, in the large hall, people continue to talk and laugh and call for each other. A man enters. The door opens to the sanctuary and a rush of excitement hits the air. She feels her father jump a little.
We are nearly ready, ten minutes. He tells them.
Her father removes his notes from an inside pocket and reviews them silently. Finally, she hears him speak. His voice has returned to the soft tone of kinship.
You know, it was Ralph who talked me out of the deal. He had agreed at first, I think because he was tired of looking at me. Her father smiled lovingly. I know it hurt him, what he saw happening to me. To say politely, or spiritually I guess, I was more than a little touched back then. I had nightmares, I would get the shakes, sometimes for hours at a time. . . He stopped a moment and cleared his throat. I think he was just tired as I was, tired of seeing me break down, tired of keeping me together, put the old dog out of his misery. But he came to me after a day and told me I was wrong. He said, America can only remember its martyrs one at a time, and does so, so that it can forget all those others who died the same way. It builds memorials skyward so it’s easier to overlook the skulls at its feet. It honors the name of a fallen hero so it doesn’t have to acknowledge the name of an atrocity. He said, America doesn’t want a saint, it wants a souvenir. Let Malcolm do it. Let it go. He basically thought that we should say no because it was their idea. Truth was, he was right, they didn’t want Malcolm as the martyr. He was too dangerous, too uncompromising: Malcolm scared them. Easier would a non-violent symbol be celebrate and lionized. Something to sooth us, smooth the rough edges of our anger. I inevitably agreed with him, I don’t know why I did but I did, and so, instead of going to the hotel, we just slipped out of town.
He rubs his bottom lip with his thumb and then continues. I regretted that for many years, even more Ralph was killed. I felt buried beneath a mountain of remorse and regret. I thought I would die that way. I was so ashamed. I tried to talk to your mother about it, to prepare her, but after the story came out, I could not find a way to mend what was broken. And a year after, they got to Ralph in Baltimore. Pin a national holiday on him before his body was in the ground. I knew I had caused that too. I had brought down everything, everything we were trying to build up. Forgiveness was like a word in a language I had never known and could never know. I should have done it. So many nights did I cry out to God. Why did he not give me the courage?
But then you were born. Your mother had kept you a secret. She was afraid. But there is something miraculous about the birth of a child no matter the circumstance. I was changed slowly. The work of God takes longer than we would like. What a blessing you are, and what a beautiful woman you have become. I am so grateful you could be here today.
The redefinition of this fatherly platitudes stirs in her. Sadness and joy move simultaneously like ripples in the same water. She regrets this stupid game. She regrets it but is glad too.
I can tell you now, the secret of the greater.
He turns but already his eyes tell of a mistrustful
I didn’t really fool around with no boy in no church.
A little smile took the corners of his lips. Daddy, the truth is, there is not a secret you have worth more than my greater.
He nodded solemnly, accepting her words with a warm smile.
A man appears at the door.
It’s time, Dr. King. They stand together but he catches her by the elbow. She instinctually hugs him. She feels his finger gently touch the nape of her neck.
You know I always look for her?
I know daddy.
They move toward the door. At the last moment, he holds back a little. His face pensive, worried again but somehow innocent opposed to haunted.
What is it? She asks.
He looks past her out into the sanctuary.
She follows his glance out through the door. The pews filled with people and movement, expectant faces. She imagines a woman standing in the back. The figure lingers in her mind and this time she makes no effort to chase it away. The figure stands, her back straight not so she could see but so she could be seen— by him.
She decides she will walk along the back of the room tonight, where her mother would have stood. For this one night, she would stop her struggle and accept her father as he was by seeing who he is, and at the same time, accept also her mother for who she was and who she now could never be. She looks back at her father standing at her side. He is speaking.
It was a long time ago. I mean, in many ways, the world is a different place.
What is it?
It’s just that, so much time has passed. I have one more secret of the lesser. . .
I sometimes get afraid they will forget him. Who Ralph was, what he did. That one day no one will remember what it was he sacrificed.
Tobin Johnston is a Writer and poet but more than that he is a husband to an artist and a father to three of the most amazing children he could hope to have.